I’m not sure how much I can write about Shane Carruth’s Primer, since (like most viewers, apparently) I am unable to give a coherent summary of its plot after having seen it once. But not understanding the plot scarcely seems to matter. The film is dense, elliptical, and powerfully involving, and I doubt a point-by-point explanation of “what happens” would make much of a difference, in terms of its impact.
Primer is about two engineers, working in a garage in an anonymous suburb somewhere in the Sunbelt (the film was shot in the environs of Dallas), who stumble upon an amazing invention. They are really just tinkering, with no particular goal in mind aside from the vague hope of coming up with something that will make them money. But it turns out that they have devised a time travel machine: it looks sort of like a strongbox or a coffin, but if they crawl inside and stay for, say, six hours or so, when they emerge it’s twelve hours or so earlier than when they entered, so they have an entire day to live all over again.
Primer is intellectual SF, exploring its premise with no bells and whistles. The film contains no special effects: most of it is just naturalistic shots of the two engineers talking or arguing, without dramatic entrances or exits, and without any of the “action” actually happening onscreen. The time-travel devices themselves are nothing, really, to look at. Just as the protagonists only gradually infer what they have discovered, so we only gradually get a sense of what they are doing, and what the stakes are. There’s kind of a drift, and then an acceleration into paranoid complications and cross-purposes, but it’s all conveyed through a murk of low-affect, casual conversation, technospeak, offhand private allusions, elliptical cuts, and occasional anomalies that the characters themselves are unable to explain. The film is often overexposed, bleached out by the Texas sun; the mise-en-scene is cluttered and yet utterly mundane; the camerawork seems straightforward and documentary-like, but nonetheless it has a strangely alienated, claustrophobic feel (I have no idea how, technically speaking, Carruth attained this).
So: we have these two guys messing with time. At first, they do simple things like finding out the stock prices in the afternoon, then going back to the morning to buy/sell accordingly. (This is just reported to us through conversation, not shown onscreen). But gradually, they start messing with time in more complex ways. And in film terms, messing with time means messing with continuity. If you live through a day, then in the evening go back to the morning and live it again, there is no way to present this linearly (since subjective time and objective time are now out of sync: if you portray/represent either one, you cannot portray/represent the other in proper succession). Worse, it means there are now two of you around instead of one: what if you meet your other self, or if other people interact with the two of you in inconsistent ways? What if you multiply the effect by doing this more than once? What if you put a time machine inside a larger time machine, sending it back in time and in effect multiplying it as well? What if you record your conversations, and listen to them through an earpiece so that you can replicate them the second time around? All of these things happen in the second half of Primer. Time travel implies a logic of feedback and recursion, and this logic seeps into the form of the film (as well as its content, since in such a case the form is the content), and everything is swamped in a sort of fractal paranoia.
The film’s achievement is to make all this as visceral and affective as it is cerebral: by the end, we don’t quite know what’s going on, but we are drawn powerfully and disturbingly into the labyrinth. Primer unfolds with a suffocating, mysterious density — or better, viscosity. The film takes seriously the idea that engineering, or technical experimentation, is a form of imagination. Technology is a probe into the unknown: those things that we often think of just as “tools” or “instruments,” or at best as prosthetic extensions of ourselves, in fact redound back upon us, and change who/what we are. Primer proposes that the mysteries of technology, as well as those of representation, are ultimately the mysteries of Time itself. Carruth’s strange amalgam of McLuhan and Borges stands alongside such films as Code 46 and Demonlover as a brilliant exploration of the metamorphoses of the postmodern image.